Saturday, 19 April 2014

Holy Saturday reflections

As well as my own wanderings/wonderings here, I wanted to share some of the best from today:

Reflections on Holy Saturday with Shelly Rambo, author of 'Spirit & Trauma: A Theology of Remaining'

Giles Fraser, 'The one day when Christians and atheists sing from the same hymn sheet'

Rachel Held Evans, 'Holy Week for doubters'

Barbara Brown Taylor, 'Learning to wait in the dark'

And this wonderful poem, that sums up what a little handful of us in Hodge Hill have been doing this evening, in a wasteland on the edge of our estate:

We told our stories -
That’s all
We sat and listened to
each other
and heard the journeys
of each soul.
We sat in silence
entering each one’s pain and
sharing each one’s joy.
We heard love’s longing
and the lonely reachings-out
for love and affirmation.
We heard of dreams
And visions fled.
Of hopes and laughter
turned stale and dark.
We felt the pain of
isolation and
the bitterness
of death.
But in each brave and
lonely story
God’s gentle life
broke through
and we heard music in
the darkness
and smelt flowers in
the void.
We felt the budding
of creation
in the searchings of
each soul
and discerned the beauty
of God’s hand in
each muddy, twisted path.
And his voice sang
in each story
his life sprang from
each death.
Our sharing became
one story
of a simple lonely search
for life and hope and
in a world which sobs
for love.
And we knew that in
our sharing
God’s voice with
mighty breath
was saying
love each other and
take each other’s hand.
For you are one
though many
and in each of you
I live.
So listen to my story
and share my pain
and death.
Oh, listen to my story
and rise and live
with me.

(Edwina Gateley, in Celebrating Women)

Holy Saturday & brutal Empires: where are we?

"My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"

It is yesterday's cry, but it echoes through today. 'Holy Saturday', this 'in-between' day which, if we put ourselves in the place of those who went through it for the first time, was no kind of 'in-between' but simply 'the day after'. The loss, the grief, the trauma fresh and raw of what they have so recently witnessed. And the future, if anything, full of fear, anxiety... and emptiness.

Jesus' question - just before he died - was 'where is God?'. It is a fair one, for all of us, on days like today. But there is the parallel question too: 'where are we?'.

The dominant story of Jesus' death tells of the disciples - male - who betray him, deny him, abandon him. A community, broken, which breaks up, fragments, disperses, dissolves.

At the edges of the dominant story, submerged, overlooked, is a counter-story. Of a handful of women, who stay, and wait, and watch - albeit from a distance. Who, after the death, take the body down from the cross and lay it to rest, do for it what needs to be done, before Friday sunset and the beginning of the Sabbath prevent any further activity.

There are parallels - I don't want to claim any more than that - with the excavative work of Jewish feminist theologian Melissa Raphael's reflections on the Holocaust (The Female Face of God at Auschwitz). The mainstream of post-holocaust theology, she argues, has shied away from finding any 'place' for God in Auschwitz - rightly rejecting the ancient tradition of biblical and rabbinic Judaism which 'saw suffering as the divine punishment for Israel's transgression or disobedience', but going further, speaking of God's 'hiddenness' in Auschwitz, as divine mystery, as a deferral to human freedom, or, most radically, as morally complicit by 'turning a blind eye to Jewry's abuse'. God did not protect or save his people, so God either 'turned his face away' from Auschwitz or (as in Elie Wiesel's most well-known work, Night) God died there.

But for Raphael, these theological traditions fail for being patriarchal through and through - even in their most radical 'protest' form: 'the classical attribute[s] of omnipotence and mercy [are] still predicated of God and the protester is angry that God chose to refrain from its exercise.' In evidence-driven modernity especially, the 'dissonance' in a story of a God 'who promises protection and then, empirically, fails to deliver it' leads to one conclusion: 'God can no longer be trusted'. If, as in Psalm 22, God is 'one who abandons us and is silent in the face of our suffering,' says Raphael, then 'there can be little to experientially distinguish this God's silence from his non-existence.' It is with the 'Who?' as much as with the 'Where?' of God in Auschwitz that Raphael is concerned: 'what is to be distrusted is not God but a particular model or figure of God'; 'God's silence in Auschwitz was the silence of an omnipotent God-king who was never there in the first place, but was one who reigned in the minds of those who required divine sanction for their own hierarchical rule'.

Into the silence left behind with the disappearance of this patriarchal 'god', Raphael painstakingly retrieves echoes of a ‘counter-tradition’ from within Judaism, and a ‘counter-testimony’ from AuschwitzIn contrast to an ‘interventionist’ God, with power over life and death, who, for some reason, absents himself from Auschwitz, Raphael seeks to uncover a God who is first and foremost present. ‘Presence, a keeping watch, is a function of love. A present God paces back and forth, circling the object of her concern; an absent God seems to have walked away’. Judaism has traditionally named the immanence of God ‘Shekhinah’ – and this is the name Raphael seeks to rediscover as being most faithful to the God who did not forsake the Jews of Auschwitz: Shekhinah is ‘the real presence of a suffering God’ – not, as in Christian tradition, incarnate in a human individual, but with, among, even as the assembled community of Jewish men and women. The ‘power’ of God in Auschwitz, Raphael argues, was not in God’s ability to stop the destruction of relationship – what a theology of ‘covenant’ affirms, however, is ‘the infinite flow of God’s power’ to renew relationship. Furthermore, it is in the embodied relationships of the people of Israel that this ‘transformatory power’ of love ‘makes itself felt in the world’ – paradigmatically in the act of welcome, ‘the one seeing and opening to the other’.

Raphael retrieves and uncovers, however, not just a largely overlooked theological tradition, but also the largely overlooked stories of courageous, persistent physical care by women and among women in the camps of Auschwitz. The Holocaust attempted – so often successfully – to isolate human beings from each other, and desecrate their personhood to the point of erasing it, through the destruction of the gas chambers and the mud and filth of the camps. One woman, Olga Lengyel, recalled the ‘struggle to overcome the disgust we felt for our companions, and for ourselves’. But struggle they did: with defiance, longing for liberation, love and the most basic practicality, the testimonies of many women in Auschwitz describe how moments of touch, wiping, and washing – even the barest, most ineffective gestures towards genuine washing – became moments of restoration of relationship and personhood, whether for the living, the dying, or the dead.

In that place where Jewish women’s personhood ‘was getting ever less perceptible’, so too, consequently, was the presence of God. ‘Shekhinah did not hide her face,’ rather, it was hidden by ‘the holocaustal assault’ itself; when human faces were hidden behind ‘the accretion of filth’, so too was God ‘de-faced’. And yet, in the similarly barely perceptible – because not powerfully dramatic or explicitly ‘religious’ – ‘ordinary’ actions of women, in the midst of the ‘wholly non-ordinary’ conditions of Auschwitz – in the simple, emblematic action of ‘wiping filth from a face’ – God’s face too was made visible to those with eyes to see it:

when a woman lifted up her cast down face to the summons of her mother, daughter, sister, or friend it caught the reflected light of the Shekhinah on its upturned surface, reflecting the glory or kavod of God’s face back into the world – even a world which was, for them, over, and a world which, become Auschwitz, had turned God away at the gates. … Rabbinic midrash compares the Shekhinah or divine presence to light, to what shines. ‘Washed’ by ersatz coffee, urine, brackish water or love alone, the reflective face lit God’s way into, through and out of, Auschwitz.[1]

Melissa Raphael is doing Jewish, not Christian, theology; her focus is Auschwitz, not Golgotha. I find myself wanting to share her reflections and her un/earthed stories primarily for their own sake, wary of repeating, in even a small way, Auschwitz’s evil of turning human beings into ‘functionaries’ rather than ‘subjects’, ‘means’ rather than ‘ends’. But reading Raphael as a Christian has been revelatory for me: the testimonies of the Jewish women of Auschwitz shed new light on the face of the God we share; their stories open up the possibility of recognising God’s presence where God is seemingly nowhere to be seen. When those around me are singing of the Father who ‘turns his face away’ unable to look at the one who bears ‘my sin upon His shoulders’, from my guts I agree with Raphael’s verdict: this God – and the theologies that make so much of both His omnipotent ‘power to protect’ and human ‘free will’ – ‘can no longer be trusted’.

And  Raphael prompts me, as a Christian, to search the witness of the gospels for, and bring to light, the counter-story of the crucifixion: those women who wait, and watch, and who do the little they can, with care and tenderness, for the dead body of Jesus. Included among them, too, are the woman who, days before, extravagantly anointed Jesus - who Jesus himself said 'anointed me beforehand for my burial'. And also Joseph of Arimathea, quiet ally of these women, who appeals to Pilate for the body, and gives his newly-cut tomb for the burial.

Melissa Raphael dares us to perceive the ‘crucial link between God’s being made present and the seeing and touching of faces and bodies that have been made unseeable and untouchable’; she challenges us to read ‘the religio-ethical response’ of ‘staying by the side of the other’, as itself ‘the essence of presence’. Might we also dare to imagine that, in the small, faithful fragment of loving community which accompanies the body of Christ from cross to tomb – a community of women and men who embody their love in purposeful, socially dangerous, physical care – there is incarnated the abiding presence of God?

I am helped a little further along this path by another feminist theologian, this time a Quaker, Rachel Muers, who, in her careful deconstruction of our cultural fascination with 'the power of speech' and the 'war of words' which silences the weaker and more marginal voices, instead calls our attention to 'the strength of listening'. Building on the work of Nelle Morton among feminist consciousness-raising groups in the 1970s, Muers suggests that listening, rather than being a response to prior speaking, is actually itself prior to speech: if an environment of attentive listening is created, it can 'hear to speech' the as yet unheard:
women ... were enabled to tell their stories and describe their experiences by the prior and continuing presence of the listening group. As Morton saw it, the speech that emerged as a result of the “hearing to speech” was genuinely new; stories and insights were articulated in ways that the women in question had not previously found to be possible. This speech was only able to come about in the context of a “depth hearing.” Women described being “heard to their own stories,” being heard “all the way down” to the point at which utterance became possible. The whole process drew Morton to speculate about what could have been involved in “a hearing that is more than acute listening. A hearing that is a direct transitive verb, that evokes speech – new speech that has never been spoken before.”[2]
Might we be able to say, then, that the women who watch and wait near Jesus' cross, are also listening - in fact, hearing him to speech in his cry of God-forsakenness? Might we even dare to say that the silence of God at Golgotha is the silence not of an absent patriarchal saviour, but of a present, hearing God, embodied in those women?

This is, in case you missed it, deeply political stuff. In the face of a brutal Empire that dehumanises, marginalises and finally disposes of its troublemakers, its 'abnormal' and 'deficient' ones, its 'human waste' - these faithful women witness (they see, so they can tell), hear (enable the voice of protest to be heard) and care (do what they can, physically, to rehumanise, against the system).

They also, critically, return. After the Sabbath day of rest, as soon as they can they return to the tomb, carrying spices prepared to anoint the body, to finish the 'last rites' for their loved one who has died. Undeterred by the apparently immovable stone sealing the tomb, they return anyway, wondering among themselves who they will find to shift it for them, but not paralysed by that not-knowing. And whatever they encounter there, mysterious and inexplicable though it may be, causes them to return again - to the city, where it has all just been happening; or (in some versions) to Galilee, where it all began. The message they go with is the injunction to 'go and see' - and, before long, emerges even more clearly as an injunction to enter the fray just as Jesus did, to live life in the midst of, but against the grain of, the Empire, and to engage others in that process of penitential, transformative engagement.

The women remind me of the work on mourning by the Jewish philosopher Gillian Rose, who reacts against what she calls 'aberrated mourning' or 'melancholy' in the face of suffering, brokenness and loss. While on the one hand, Rose rejects simplistic attempts to 'make sense', which fail to take the time to mourn and shut down questioning in efforts to regain 'security' (e.g. the 'heroic soldier', 'good versus evil' and 'redemptive violence' narratives), she also recoils against the tendency - particularly among many postmodern thinkers - to 'keep the wound open' in a passive melancholy without end. Instead, she proposes the self-reflective, active work of what she calls 'inaugurated mourning' which, as one of her commentators puts it, 'gives voice to suffering, creating a space for stories to be told and listened to - a space in which pain is acknowledged', but leads always towards a questioning, an attempting to understand - a 'contextualisation, towards a consideration of the broad social, political and historical processes that have influenced present circumstances', and a returning, a re-entering the fray - 'a being-in-the-world that is embedded both in local community and in wider social structures' - rediscovering one's agency, however risky that might be.[3]

What Rose describes, and names elsewhere as the work of dwelling in the 'broken middle', is hardly a triumphant resurrection narrative. But then, I'm not entirely sure the gospels offer us one of those either. What the Christian church offers us is an Easter season - 7 whole weeks of it, longer than Lent - to begin to grapple with what the absence and elusive-but-transformative presence of the risen Jesus means for us, and for the world. I am left wondering - a good Holy Saturday practice - whether Rose's 'broken middle' may be the space within which we are invited to do our grappling...

[1] Melissa Raphael, Female Face of God, pp.105-6. 
[2] Rachel Muers, Keeping God's Silence, p.50
[3] Kate Schick, Gillian Rose: A Good-Enough Justice, pp.46-51

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

An anointing (a sermon for 'Holy Wednesday')

Mark 14:3 While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. 4But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. 6But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

We’re not even told her name…

Not in Mark or Matthew…

In Luke, in the house of Simon the Pharisee, she is described as ‘a sinner’. She washes Jesus’ feet with tears and ointment and kisses, and she dries them with her hair. She has shown great love, says Jesus to Simon, because she has been greatly forgiven.

In John, we’re in Bethany – at home with Mary, Martha and Lazarus – and it is Mary – Lazarus’ sister – who anoints Jesus’ feet, and wipes them with her hair. Great love: not for sins forgiven, but for a brother brought back to life.

In Mark and Matthew, we’re in Bethany too, in the house of Simon the leper. But here, the woman is an anonymous stranger – no introductions, no name, no history, not even a word spoken – slipping into the story, and just as suddenly leaving it… But of this woman, Jesus says something quite, quite remarkable: ‘Wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

And what is it that she has done? The ointment is the same, and the expense – almost a year’s wages for a jar – but this time there are no tears, no wiping away with loosened hair, and it is not Jesus’ feet that she anoints.  This anonymous stranger enters, breaks open the jar, and silently pours the oil over Jesus’ head. While the women of Luke and John have brought gratitude, love and tender care, Matthew and Mark’s woman has come as a prophet: if Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one, then it is she who anoints him. Following in the footsteps of Moses, of Samuel, of Elijah, but with a task greater, more sacred, more authoritative than any of them, she has been sent by God to anoint God, to ordain Jesus as priest, to consecrate him as King, to commission him for the way of love, the way of the cross.

And her prophetic work is to pre-figure Jesus’ own passion. Her extravagant, dangerous love, her self-sacrificial service, will strengthen him for his; her unreasonable, use-less ‘waste’ will overflow into his; the suspicion and conflict she provokes will echo around him; and he too, like her, will remain silent in the face of his accusers.

Her work is unsettlingly, profoundly prophetic. But she is also the model of the true disciple. While those around scold and criticise and use concern for the poor as a pretext for their irritation, she knows that this Jesus is one of the poor, that this Christ needs friends, this God walking the way of the cross needs company. She is keeping faith, while those around are losing it; betrayal, denial, abandonment are just around the corner for this Jesus; her faith, her hope, her love, poured over him tonight, will go with him to his death, will be buried with him, will……

But what about us? Where is our ‘way in’ to this powerful story? What place is there for us at the table in Bethany?

Shortly, we will have the opportunity to be anointed ourselves: to have the sign of the cross made, in oil, on our foreheads. Tracing the mark of our baptism: ‘Christ claims you for his own. Receive the sign of his cross. Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified… [R]emain faithful to Christ to the end of your life.’ Tracing a cross-mark, too, from Ash Wednesday: ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’.

Be faithful to Christ. That is what the sign of the cross means for us. And through the days that follow – through the fear of Maundy Thursday, the darkness of Good Friday, the silence of Holy Saturday – and through those days of fear, darkness, and silence for us and for our world before and after this week – being faithful to Christ is a near-impossible calling. But if the story of this strange, unnamed woman is indeed good news to be remembered, then it is surely to give us courage, strength and hope. Her costly gift is for us too: we too are invited to be anointed with love, for love, and by love – anointed with, alongside, Jesus; anointed for his way of passion and compassion; and anointed by the God who, through a love stronger even than death, can alone bring even what is dead to life.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Changing stuff (2): #CameronJesus, #EndHungerFast & #OccupyOurStreet

I'm still tantalised and frustrated - in equal amounts - by the possibility and difficulty of 'changing stuff' beyond the 'local'. In my last blog, I got all 'eschatological', anticipating future 'victories' in the temporary spaces of the here and now, spaces that might be 'in the system' but most definitely not 'of the system'. I gestured towards those 'thresholds' between 'the world as it is' and 'the world as it should/could/will be', and suggested that attending to those thresholds might make a real difference.

Here I feel the need to get practical again. I felt more than a little irony last Thursday, at the end of a rather long but rewarding day. Around 60 of us had been exploring the huge potential in an 'asset-based community development' approach for faith communities wanting to help draw out and connect up the gifts and treasures within their neighbourhoods, building local power to transform things for the better at a local level. At the same time, I discovered, David Cameron had been telling the world about his sincere Christian faith, how 'the Big Society' was really Jesus' idea, and how he, David, with the help of other good people of faith, was continuing Jesus' work.

Actually, I felt more than irony. I felt a bit sick. The inescapable danger of working away at the neighbourhood level, of championing the power of local people to transform communities, and of connecting local faith communities into that work, is that we get co-opted by a State that is quite happy to wash its hands of neighbourhoods and communities like ours, slashing services and investment and letting 'the Market' do its nasty, destructive thing, and looking to good people of faith to pick up the pieces. Asset-stripping, in the name of 'asset-building'. The 'Common Wealth' statement of 2010 recognised very early on that 'Big Society' was a cloak for radical cuts and disinvestment from the poorest neighbourhoods - and that has been what we've seen. And more than that - we've seen a systematic nurturing of the 'empathy deficit' that not only sneers at the poor, but blames them for their poverty and for the problems that come with it, while the so-called 'squeezed middle' swallow the lie that it's the 'scrounging' poor, not the super-rich wealth-hoarders, who are responsible for our current precarious economic state.

I've suggested in this blog - in a couple of excessively wordy posts that might just have defeated many readers - that while top-down enforcements of 'community resilience' ('you must survive and adapt within a wider system that you can do nothing about') are pretty deadly, there might just be a kind of bottom-up resilience which, rather than being 'contained' in the local, instead has the potential to 'overflow' it - internally, in forms of community ('conviviality' is one word, 'carnival' is another) that elude and surpass government control and even comprehension; and externally, into wider relationships of solidarity, defiance and even revolution. But how, in practice? That is the question.

Over the past year or so, I've found myself participating in processes that have been attempting to 'change stuff' beyond the local. Birmingham's 'Social Inclusion' process I've blogged about here. All along the way it's used the language of a 'new approach' which centres on 'community assets' and 'co-production' all along the way, but has struggled, often, to translate that into meaningful practical change. I've written a couple of laboured, detailed responses to Green Papers (I'm not quite sure why!), but much of the gap between language and practice seems to remain. On the other hand, the wonderful 'Places of Welcome' network that has emerged from the Social Inclusion process has illustrated and embodied exactly what the language has been striving to find - 'this is what it looks like', and it's happening all over the city already.

I've also had a fair amount to do with the 'Citizens' model of community organizing over the last couple of years, and it has much, in its stated vision and values, to commend it:

  •  building relationships through careful listening and sharing in ‘one-to-ones’
  • growing the confidence, skills and capabilities in teams of local leaders
  •  building alliances between faith, education, and labour institutions
  • finding common ground across difference in issues of social justice and the common good
  • holding those in authority to account on issues that affect the lives of people across the city

But I've had my hesitations too: about scale - the city, certainly Birmingham, is just too big, and the neighbourhood level risks being neglected; about pace - a sense of hurriedness risks putting 'the agenda' over the patient work of listening and relationship-building; and about an approach which, almost by definition, tends to put 'community organizing' before 'community building', the 'hard power' of numbers and structures before the 'soft power' of relationships of trust and friendship, and attends to the 'problems' of communities before really finding out what their strengths are. All of these have led us in Hodge Hill to want to 'stay friends' with Citizens, and to work together 'ad hoc' where our agendas coincide, but not to quite 'take the plunge' of making their approach central to what we do here.

And then, this Lent, I've found myself working with friends and colleagues, driving the 'End Hunger Fast' campaign in Birmingham, which breaks most of the rules I've just set for myself: it all happened in a hurry, it did its best to be not just Birmingham-wide but national, it was - in many ways - all about getting numbers signed up, and it was incredibly issue-focused, about food poverty and the government policies that are currently exacerbating it. But it started, for me, with an invitation from a very good friend, who was fasting from food completely for 40 days - so how could I say No?!

It's still early days, perhaps, to evaluate 'End Hunger Fast' as a campaign. But here are some of the things that 'worked' about it. Firstly, it sparked, and to a great extent 'snowballed', a heated public exchange between church leaders and politicians, in the glare of the media spotlight. With sharp words from Archbishop Vincent Nicholls, and a response from David Cameron very much on the back foot (about his 'moral mission', of all unlikely claims), the EHF letter hit the press hard and, in the process, saw the FoodBank giant Trussell Trust shift from being praised by the government as 'the Big Society in action', to being condemned by an angry Iain Duncan-Smith for pushing a 'political agenda'. Damn right, and not a moment too soon.

Secondly, the invitation to fast itself seemed to catch many people's imagination. An old - almost archaic, for many - tradition, revitalised as an imaginative act of empathy and solidarity. A practice not just for Muslims and seemingly alien to most secular Westerners - but something that has begun to mean something, and do something, once again.

Thirdly, the power of social media came into its own, attaching the hashtags #endhungerfast and #fastApril4th to all kinds of powerful messages, and images of empty plates and fasting people. Thousands have been able to follow my good friend Keith Hebden's 40-day fast, and encourage others to join in in their own small but not insignificant ways.

And then, in Birmingham particularly, we planted a garden shed, 'The Hunger Hut' in Cathedral Square for the duration of Lent, from which we engaged passers-by with flyers, conversation, and the opportunity to come into the Hut to find out more, light a candle to pray, and commit themselves to the campaign. On Ash Wednesday, as Lent kicked off, we invited people to add their thumbprints, in ash, to the EHF letter from church leaders. And around Birmingham, as well as at the Hut, we've been collecting people's stories of first-hand experience of hunger, in 'Hunger Journals' that we're going to submit to the Truro/Field Commission on Food Poverty. There was something about the Hut being where it was, with echoes of Occupy LSX (our wonderful Dean of Birmingham Cathedral was rather less keen on our first suggestion of a tent!), and being there for 40 days, emblazoned with the 'End Hunger Fast' logo and website, that 'interrupted' - symbolically at least, but also actually for many people - the normal flow of city life, in the middle of Birmingham's business district. There was a patience, an endurance, even if it closely followed the last-minute scramble in late February to make it all happen.

The Social Inclusion Inquiry, Citizens UK in Birmingham, and End Hunger Fast. Different approaches to 'scaling up' from the local, to seek to have an impact on the systems and structures which so often have the local in their grip. Attending summits and responding to Green Papers. Building alliances across institutions. Creating an interruption through symbolic action, social networks, and temporary occupation. All have their strengths and weaknesses, opportunities to effect real change and vulnerabilities to co-option and paralysis. But all three point me back towards my neighbourhood, and our messy, fragile, small-scale, slow-paced work of community-building.

At a recent gathering of church leaders from Birmingham's outer estates, we were privileged to spend an hour with a very senior Birmingham City Council officer, in open, honest and humble conversation. At the end of the hour, I asked him what he would like to see, or hear, us outer estates clergy doing as a result of our conversation. He replied that he wanted to see us stirring up local voices, to hold government - national and local - to account. To be catalysts of 'local democracy', far beyond encouraging people to turn out to vote every May.

In a quite brilliant recent blog, my friend and travelling-companion Cormac Russell lucidly outlines the power of 'neighbour power' - how locally-rooted, co-operative 'power from the people' can be what really changes the structures and systems:

If we care about participatory democracy we will go to where the connectors, conductors, and circuit breakers can constructively steward energy in a way that is inclusive and supports people to generate disparate energy into collective democratic power. 
That place is local, hence democracy is not just an ideal, it has a location, and that location is our communities of place. The act of building democracy is therefore an act of homecoming that extends outwards to govern the health, wealth and justice of a nation. And so it is, as well as occupying Wall Street, we must come to occupy our street.
Read Cormac's blog in full - a mere snippet here really can't do justice to it. But that connection between 'Occupy Wall Street' and the occupation of our own streets resonates strongly for me, and keeps nudging me to explore it further. It reminds me of a few dimensions of what I'm involved with here in Hodge Hill that I tend to forget: the 'poetic' dimension, seeking to 'tell our stories', especially the ones that seem to have some symbolic power (Hodge Hill Unsung Heroes and our community Passion Play, to name but two); an engagement with wider bodies and networks of thought, academic and 'critical' in other ways; the way we use social media to get things 'out there' (Facebook locally, Twitter to connect with the wider world, and blogs like this to flesh out some of the detail and explore things at length); and the way we're trying to 'do church' differently, in the round, with many voices heard (in liturgy and decision-making), and doing our best to connect and blur the boundaries between 'inside' and 'outside'.
And I'm reminded, finally, of the intentional messiness of the Occupy movement, and I wonder again if we're treading quite similar paths:
The disadvantage of such leaderless movements is that they allow for no quick resolutions and fixes, and they reduce the expectation of efficiency... Nevertheless, a slower process of addressing and resolving the problems of the world and an efficiency that rests on the shoulders of many may be more effective in the long run... [Also] it cannot be destroyed easily, as the destruction of those whom the system identifies as leaders will not bring the movement to a halt. (Joerg Rieger & Kwok Pui-lan, Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude, p.81)
Which feels like quite an Easter-y thought on which to finish, for now...

Monday, 7 April 2014

Changing stuff: Reclaim the Streets, Desmond Tutu & the DWP

How do we make things change? Beyond the work of community-building in our neighbourhoods - nurturing places of encounter, building relationships of trust and friendship, connecting people together through their passions, gifts and skills - how do we engage in movements, networks, flows that stand any chance of changing the bigger stuff - systems, governments, widespread prejudices and attitudes, 'the powers that be'...?

I realise it's a big question. But it's one that a lot of people seem to be asking, reflecting on, writing about, talking about at the moment - and it feels urgent, exciting, and more than a little heady to try and enter that conversation.

I've recently been re-reading a quite brilliant book on 'Christianity and Contemporary Politics' by Luke Bretherton, in which he describes politics, within a 'Christian cosmopolitan vision', as involving:
"the formation of a common world of meaning and action within particular places. The formation of such a world entails, on the one hand, the breaking down of those structures and patterns of relationship that exclude vulnerable strangers from this common world and, on the other, the upholding of those structures and patterns of relationship that maintain this world as a common one."
We grow up, says Bretherton, within "concentric circles of relationship", with neighbours near and distant, and, from a Christian perspective, as we seek to love those neighbours we are orienting our relationships towards an "eschatological horizon of fulfillment" - the image is of "the gathering of all peoples to the messianic banquet that has already begun amid the fallen structures of the earthly city". And this "horizon of fulfillment", Bretherton suggests, "both draws in and constantly interrupts all attempts" to make a particular place either "idolatrously self-sufficient" or "totally encompassing" in terms of our "economic, political, and social relationships". So on the one hand, "various forms of nationalism and identity politics overvalue the particularity of a place (be it cultural or geographic)", while on the other hand, "liberal cosmopolitan, global conceptions of citizenship, and the reductive universalism of capitalism" undervalue the particularity of place. [Bretherton, Christianity & Contemporary Politics, p.211]

I find Bretherton's reflections really helpful here, for a number of reasons: he refuses any simplistic polarities like 'now, bad; future, good'; he values and focuses on the importance of place; he embraces difference and seeks not sameness or unity but places where we can 'be-in-common'; and he holds on to an ultimate hope that isn't deferred indefinitely, but is already breaking into the here and now.

Into this 'frame', I find a lot of things beginning to 'fit'. I've blogged here and here at length on my suspicion of 'community resilience' language, as disabling our imagination, desire and agency to change things beyond the local. I'm also more and more persuaded that while 'resistance' language is helpful, to a point, the fact that it is inescapably defined by - even dependent on - the thing it is 'resisting', very quickly becomes problematic, again limiting the possibilities of our imagination, our desire, and our agency.

From an eschatological perspective, instead, we can turn things around and see what currently seems like the 'status quo' (e.g. global capitalism) as in fact 'resisting' that which is coming (i.e. in Christian terms, the peaceful and just kingdom of God). This is what I'm finding all over the place, in non-Christian language, in the writings around 'post-capitalist politics' (see e.g. J-K Gibson-Graham) and the Occupy movement, to name but two. And the resonances between these streams of thought and action, and those of the Christian tradition, intrigue and excite me.

Take, for example, Gibson-Graham's reflection on the 'Reclaim the Streets' (RTS) movement - 'short-lived', 'embodying the political value of interruption (as distinct from endurance)', but 'producing an affective shock wave that reverberates through the brittle architecture of established forms' of political agency and spatial governance. Quoting Rebecca Solnit, they cite RTS's 'incendiary carnival spirit, global Internet communications, and tactics of temporary victory [my italics]' as creating 'part of the vocabulary of what came next'.

I like the idea of RTS's 'tactics of temporary victory'. It reminds me of one of the most profound stories (for me) from the anti-apartheid movement, as told by Jim Wallis, veteran American Christian campaigner for social justice, about the great Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
"A political rally had just been canceled by the white government, so Bishop Tutu called for a worship service instead, inside the beautiful cathedral [of St George's, Cape Town]. The  power of apartheid was frighteningly evident in the numbers of riot police and armed soldiers massing outside the church. Inside, all along the cathedral walls, stood more police openly taping and writing down every comment made from the pulpit. When Tutu rose to speak, the atmosphere was tense indeed. He confidently proclaimed that the 'evil' and 'oppression' of the system of apartheid 'cannot prevail.' At that moment, the South African archbishop was probably one of the few people on the planet who actually believed that. 
"Archbishop Tutu point[ed] his finger right at the police who were recording his words. 'You may be powerful, indeed very powerful, but you are not God!' And the God whom we serve, said Tutu, 'cannot be mocked!' 'You have already lost!' the diminutive preacher thundered. Then he came out from behind the pulpit and seemed to soften, flashing that signature Desmond Tutu smile. So - since they had already lost, as had just been made clear - South African's spiritual leader shouted with glee, 'We are inviting you to come and join the winning side!' The whole place erupted, the police seemed to scurry out, and the congregation rose up in triumphal dancing..." (Jim Wallis God's Politics)
What Bretherton calls the 'eschatological horizon' puts Reclaim the Streets' 'tactics of temporary victory' into hopeful, transformative perspective. Even 'short-lived interruptions' can be glimpses of the triumphal celebrations of Desmond Tutu's 'winning side', especially when the place of those 'interruptions' is hospitable enough to invite oppressors to 'cross the floor' and join those they have been oppressing, glimpses of the 'common world' which Bretherton describes as both real possibility and ongoing task.

Our work locally in Hodge Hill is rather more mundane than the confrontation in Cape Town cathedral, or the 'incendiary carnival spirit' of Reclaim the Streets. But if change doesn't begin where we are, then it doesn't happen, full stop. One of our dilemmas in the last little while has been how closely we associate our twice-weekly Open Door drop-in with the local JobCentrePlus, and the whole oppressively punitive DWP system within which JCP staff have to operate. We have, since we opened Open Door, welcomed quite a number of people who've been referred our way by JCP. And then, more recently, we've discovered that some people coming to us have been told their attendance is compulsory - in other words, if they don't come to us, they risk getting sanctioned.

What do we do with this? Nothing of what we're about wants to collude with the vicious, dehumanising system over which the DWP presides. But we'd rather people came to us than to some of the other places people get sent - one of our regulars contrasts us to a rather more corporate work club where, he says, "you're treated like dirt", pointed to a computer with barely an acknowledgement of your existence, let alone your humanity. We have been very intentional about trying to create a space where relationships work differently, where people are honoured and respected in their complexity and vulnerability, where people's gifts are celebrated and connected together as well as their needs met, and so on...

Resonances come from conversations with other people and places. We've heard recently of a Christian organisation that employs 'relational youth workers' in school settings, often taking 'referrals' of young people struggling within the school system, but seeking to create a very different kind of environment, where young people can be welcomed as gifts, rather than problems, and where friendships can be nurtured, rather than targets striven for. "In the system, but not of the system," is how the organisation describes their role, echoing an old formula from Christian theology.

And food banks too, while deeply ambivalent, are proving, in some places at least, to be the openings to relationships of mutual respect, friendship and reciprocity, and functioning to 'conscientize' often white, middle-class, naturally-Tory-leaning volunteers into an angry disgust at a political system that forces people into a desperate dependency on emergency food supplies.

What we're edging towards, I think, is a description of places, spaces, environments however temporary or fragile, where, to quote RS Thomas' wonderful poem, The Kingdom, "there are quite different things going on". Not separate from everyday, compromised, ambivalently messy reality, but in the midst of it - but "in the system and not of it" - 'threshold spaces', we might call them, from one world into another. This is language with which Christians are relatively familiar. We have been used to talking about it in relation to church buildings, and Christian worship. I want to suggest, picking up on the kind of messiness I tried to describe in my previous blogpost, that it's much less tidy than that. It is happening in spaces unrecognisable as 'church', in canvas encampments and midnight street-walking. It is happening among people who claim 'faith' and many, many who don't. But there is something profoundly eschatological, profoundly hopeful, about what is happening. And it is changing stuff - slowly, perhaps, but it's still changing stuff: one encounter, one relationship, one place at a time.